“Every letter is a love letter.” With Transparent, creator Jill Soloway has surely earned a deserved black cheque from Amazon to make whatever she wants. Her choice? Chris Kraus’ book, I Love Dick, which follows filmmaker Chris (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), who takes them to Marfa, where he has been offered a fellowship to finish a book he’s been writing on the Holocaust.
Their marriage has dried up, their creative impulses deadened and their sex life is non-existent. Then, in walks Dick (Kevin Bacon), the academic darling of the town. He swaggers around on a horse, wears tight, white t-shirts and has a seminar with a two-year waiting list. What does he read? “I’m post-idea,” he declares, smugly, at dinner with our lead couple.
He’s as dickish as his character’s name would suggest, the kind of lecturer who orders his students to walk around a room for 30 minutes and feel the artwork on the walls. His own contribution to the world of creativity? A brick. It’s called “brick”. But he’s unbearably alluring with his confidence, intelligence and brazen eye contact. Kevin Bacon is on fire here, bristling with potency, reminding us just why he’s better than those dreadful EE adverts – in a single look, he could well impregnate half the audience. Sure enough, he turns out to be the spark Chris and Sylvere’s marriage needs to fire up again – and it’s in that bizarre chemistry that the show strikes into fascinating territory.
Griffin Dunne is enjoyably drab as Sylvere, attempting to hit on younger academics at parties and talking about trauma and pain with a bookish monotone. Even his pillow talk his dire – it’s no wonder that talking of Dick, and reading Chris’ semi-fictional letters the horse-riding stud, is needed to awaken his ickle professor in the bedroom.
But enough about the men. I Love Dick is a wonderfully unsheathed story of female expression. Kathryn Hahn is marvellous in the lead: after her scene-stealing turn in Transparent, it’s no surprise that Soloway would put her centre-stage for her next project. Hahn is devastatingly real, from her sadness as a neglected wife to her frustration as an overlooked artist. When a bloke turns up to fix the fridge, she ends up railing at him about the lack of recognition for great female directors – a tirade that’s wonderfully countered by Soloway’s hiring of helmers such as Andrea Arnold for episodes. (Of course, the bloke turns out to be an artist too – this is a world of preening would-bes and dreaming creatives, one that, not unlike Transparent, manages to be both mildly mockable and entirely engaging.)
Most of all, Hahn glows in her excitement at her encounters (both real and imagined) with Dick. In the show’s best moments, that excitement takes over our screen, as her letters spring up to full size, spelling out tributes and declarations and urges in bright red and white letters. As the title of the show suggests, the series doesn’t shy away from sex, but revels in it – and it’s refreshing to see a programme that takes a mature attitude to intercourse, and even more refreshing for it to come from a woman’s perspective. Co-creator Sarah Gubbins does a superb job of looking at Kraus’ book through female eyes – with the male gaze dominating so much of TV and film, the result is not just visually spectacular, full of impeccably composed frames, but bracingly boundary-pushing. the first full-nude shot we get is of Bacon, standing in the sunlight by the same of his pool. Beneath Bacon’s swaggering veneer lies a hint of rugged vulnerability, but how much of that is real and how much of that is project by Chris? There are layers to the whole affair throughout, as the show embraces the soap operatics of the provocative love triangle at its heart, stuffing the script with gorgeous nuance, artistic longing and human relationships.
The result manages to be simultaneously sensual and sensitive, petty and pretentious, steamy and sad. This is a series that shouldn’t be watched timidly: this is television to be devoured.
I Love Dick is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.